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Boxing and Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia
Muzna Qamar
As Anthony Joshua brings global attention to Saudi Arabia this weekend, John Dennen speaks to the country’s first female boxer

ON Saturday Rasha Alkhamis is going drive to the fight. That ought to be routine enough, but in Saudi Arabia it’s new. “I never thought that I would actually witness this day. Even though I had my driving licence,” she told Boxing News. “I have an international driving licence, I never thought that one day, I would see myself driving to the boxing match.

“Driving a car, going to Anthony Joshua’s fight, parking my car, attending a concert. Who would ever have thought that this would actually happen? If you just take yourself four years back, I would say no, that would never happen.”

“I’d be overwhelmed with mixed emotions. I’ll be super happy because I’m going to witness this game in my country, at the same time I’m going to be full of mixed emotions, overwhelming,” she continued. “I wish I could actually describe what I’m going to feel.”

It’s a personal milestone for Alkhamis, Saudi Arabia’s first female boxer. She took up the sport while studying in America and once she’d returned home took the opportunity to push women’s boxing forward in the country. She became the first female boxer certified in her homeland and began to run training programmes at universities, that had hundreds of attendees. She pushed for the Saudi boxing federation to develop women’s boxing. “The country was changing and the country was more opening up,” she reflected. “It was the best time to actually happen, to effect change, be part of boxing and do that change. There were a lot of things happening in the country such as women driving, having the right to vote, travelling without the consent of their guardianship, these kind of things that happened. Boxing was not a major thing. Well, it was a major thing but it was part of the change.

Saudi Arabia
Rasha Alkhamis is Saudi Arabia’s first female boxer Muzna Qamar

“I want to see everyone practise boxing because the impact is very tangible. It changed my life and it changed my perspective.”

She insists that “plenty of people who now are actually following their passion, back then industries were very limited, now you can see people in art, in culture, in music and sports. So you can see that it’s unlocked different industries. Now I’m surprised by people, how society is actually absorbing and normalising the change.

“I think there’s many who are actually resistant to change, whether they are inside Saudi or outside Saudi, but the majority are for change.”

“If you take me back 10 years back I would never have thought that I’d be a certified female boxer in Saudi Arabia, I sit on two boards, the Saudi boxing federation, the Asian Boxing Confederation,” she said considering her own situation. “For a very long time boxing has been a taboo, not only for women but as well for men. Because hitting in the face in Islam is taboo.”

For her Anthony Joshua fighting Andy Ruiz in Diriyah is important. She’ll feel “proud that I’m a boxer, that I’m the first female boxer in Saudi Arabia… Now you can see this fight is happening. That’s massive.”

Saudi Arabia
Alkhamis’ ambition is for Saudi Arabia to develop a competitive Olympic team Ayah Ahmad

The heavyweight title rematch has come at vast expense. Joshua clearly will collect a career high purse (and in his career that is an awful lot of money). This rematch, for the unified WBO, WBA and IBF belts, is the most high profile boxing event of the year and draws with it the attention of the world. Bringing a bout of this magnitude to the Middle East is significant and in this case it has state backing.

For human rights campaigners like Amnesty International it represents a “high watermark” in sportswashing. Felix Jakens, Amnesty International’s head of campaigns, explained, “We see sportswashing as a process where they’re trying to just clean up that image through these occasional moments of more positive PR about Saudi Arabia. Trying to shift the conversation away from things like the killing of Jamal Khashoggi on to Andy Ruiz and Anthony Joshua going to fight there.”

Jakens does not considers these moments emblematic of broader change. “The wider reality is that even though there have been those small steps forward, in other areas there are huge steps backwards,” he says citing, “The grisly killing of Jamal Khashoggi and the subsequent cover up, the complete lack of accountability for that being a really shocking and very grave human rights violation, the ongoing conflict in Yemen from the Saudi backed coalition where tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in indiscriminate bombing raids, the total and ongoing lack of any independent journalism in the country with any criticism of the regime still being met with incredibly harsh sentences.”

Saudi Arabia
Anthony Joshua will rematch Andy Ruiz at a custom built arena in Diriyah Action Images/Reuters/Andrew Couldridge

Their view though is not that Joshua should necessarily have declined the invitation to box in Saudi Arabia. Rather Jakens advises, “He should be completely aware of the situation in the country, and he can have a quick google of Jamal Khashoggi or Loujain al-Hathloul, who’s one of the women’s rights defenders who’s been imprisoned for peacefully protesting for the right to drive, he’ll find out what the reality is in Saudi Arabia. So we’re calling on him to educate himself first and use his not inconsiderable platform, he’s got global reach, to speak out about what’s happening in the country.”

Other observers perceive this occasion as a different moment, an opportunity to encourage engagement. Charlotte Leslie chaired cross Parliamentary groups on both boxing and Saudi Arabia when she was a Conservative MP. “Having big events like that [for] their population and what it says to them about where their country’s going, I think it’s hard to call it just sportswashing. It’s changing people’s lives. You’ve got young Saudi men and women who are looking at people like Joshua, Amir Khan and saying we’re becoming a country that’s actually engaging with the whole world,” she said, “[and thinking] my life isn’t just contained into the old, old strictures that my mother’s life was contained into. It’s like opening a window.”

“Saudi people, particularly Saudi young people want the kind of social freedom that we take for granted,” she continued. “There’s still a long way to go… But the guardianship laws, which prevented women travelling without permission from their guardians, the males in their family, they’re changing. So women are having far more freedom to travel, which people did say would never happen and it’s happening… I don’t think you can really talk about women’s rights in places like Saudi Arabia and at the same time not engage with what’s going on there that is really good. This is really game changing. When you speak to women who are pioneering things in their countries … we should be supporting those people. It doesn’t mean you can’t call out bad stuff when it happens.

Saudi Arabia
Bringing a fight as big as Joshua-Ruiz opens a discussion about ‘sportswashing’ in Saudi Arabia Action Images/Reuters/Andrew Couldridge

“These things are never completely simple. It’s just see it, understand it. Because if we do continue just to say there’s human rights abuses and therefore we’re not going to engage, we’re going to criticise and boycott anything that’s happening, the chances are that country might not go in the right direction. It’s a real battle to open up opportunities for women in the way that the West would like to see. It’s really difficult.

“At the same time it doesn’t mean that people can’t protest or raise the cases of things that are going on. You need to do that as well, you need both; holding things to account and calling out things that are wrong but also support for people if it really is people you care about.”

Boxing’s relationship with Saudi Arabia looks set to continue. People like Rasha Alkhamis laudably are trying to expand the grassroots of sport in the country and encourage people to derive the benefits of boxing training. Her aim is for the amateur sport to develop a competitive Olympic team in the years to come.

At the top end the staging of Joshua-Ruiz could be the start of a trend, given the vast resources being made available to attract major bouts. It means that boxing’s key figures will need to address the questions that stem from the sport’s deepening involvement with the country.

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